Fans of the TV show “Hell’s Kitchen” will tell you that preparing beef Wellington is a nightmare for any cook. The dish requires a golden puff pastry wrapper on the outside and a perfectly cooked steak on the inside. Gordon Ramsay, the show’s famously foul-mouthed host, has dubbed many a contestant a “[bleep]ing donkey” for screwing up a Wellington. Had Ramsay dined with me at Swift & Sons, a new steakhouse collaboration between the Boka Restaurant Group (Balena, Boka, Girl & the Goat, Momotaro and more) and B. Hospitality (The Bristol, Balena, Formento’s and Nonna’s), he would have had a field day.
Not so well(ington) done
The steak inside Swift & Son’s Wellington—a thick, ruby-pink 12-ounce filet mignon the size of two hockey pucks stacked on top of each other—was quite fabulous. But it was also slathered with a mushroom duxelles (a gravy-like cocoon of mushroom, shallots and herbs), topped with Chiclet-sized cuts of foie gras and wrapped in housemade puff pastry from pastry chef Meg Galus. When executive chef Chris Pandel carved the dish tableside, my date’s portion had all the foie gras and mine had none. Though the puff pastry was mostly golden and crispy on the outside, the interior was gluey and raw. I sloughed that part off and started pulling at it, finding pliant bits of undercooked dough throughout. My date’s pastry had the same problem. I mentioned this to Pandel a few days later via a phone interview. “I thought we’d only do a few of these a night, but I think you saw me. I was running from table to table,” he said. “We [were] doing 15 to 20 of these the night you came in, and, this is not an excuse, but yours was the only one sent back, which of course is totally ludicrous. I feel bad about that.”
To be fair, I visited about a week after Swift & Sons opened. Pandel oversees a kitchen of 42 cooks. He’s not hand-coddling each dish that comes out of the kitchen. Getting a team this big on the same page takes time. What’s more important in this situation is how the restaurant reacts to the error. This was a $105 plate for two, and I was curious to see how the service team would handle the problem. In addition to the raw pastry, we were also missing a side of horseradish cream ($3) we ordered.
Though the service was attentive when we arrived, the dining room was buzzing by the time we received the steak. By the time we tracked down our server, we were halfway done and no longer needed the cream. I told her about the rawness of the pastry, to which she responded “Thank you for the feedback” and whisked away our plates. I was a little worried that would be it, but soon a manager swooped over to our table, apologized and said he’d remove the charge from our bill. He also asked us if we’d eaten enough or wanted more because “you never want to leave a steakhouse hungry.” This was more than generous as we’d eaten half the steak and I would have been totally happy with a reduced charge.
Wined and dined
I can’t say I’m surprised it worked out this way. Though Swift & Sons is an 8,000-square-foot space, the service team is responsive and friendly, finding ways to impart luxury and intimacy with their awareness. I loved that Pandel came out and carved the beef tableside. When it was clear I was confused and my head was buried in the leather-bound wine list, trying to parse four cabernet sauvignons offered by the glass, wine director Marcello Cancelli appeared like a grape-bearing fairy godfather and discussed each one. Cancelli is the perfect sommelier. It’s clear he knows the impacts of malolactic fermentation and carbonic maceration on winemaking. But many diners won’t, and he knows this too. Instead, he talks about flavors and winemakers’ personalities, comparing vintage years to Super Bowl champions. It was clear by his fervor and the glint in his eye that I had to have the 2012 Red Hills Obsidian Ridge cab. I’m so glad I took him up on this as I really enjoyed the peppery, black cherry notes in the wine. Though at $22 a glass, it’s a little pricey.
In terms of grandeur and detail, no other steakhouse in the city comes close to Swift & Sons’ ambition. Co-owner Kevin Boehm said the restaurant has been in the works since 2012, but the dream of a steakhouse has been floating around for 14 years. “When you look at all the steakhouses in America, there is a very similar simple, masculine look that seems to dominate most of them,” he said. “We wanted to do something that was slightly different [with] layers of details, interesting colors and textures around every turn.”
The design team achieved that. Though the space is fairly open, smart divisions make it feel like a clandestine warren of rooms, the kind of place in which a secret society might perform a ritual or two. The entryway—replete with tile inlays, old ledgers, pens and vintage photos of the restaurant’s namesake, legendary meatpacking baron Gustavus Franklin Swift—makes you feel like you’ve been transported into a grand theatrical set piece. The dining room features bullet-shaped table lanterns, wood paneling and soaring cement columns, a holdover from when the restaurant was a cold storage warehouse. The room had the feel of a vintage ocean liner, like I was dining in the grand ballroom of the Titanic.
Surf, turf and carbs
Pandel has sourced some interesting cuts of beef, including a center-cut ribeye or “boot” cut steak; ribeye cap, a rare cut that has some of the most marbling and flavor of any part of a cow; and pristine A5 (the highest rating) wagyu beef you won’t find at most other beef palaces.
Most steakhouses offer towering platters of cold seafood. Pandel does too, but he also serves up a unique hot shellfish platter ($26 per person) featuring house-shucked scallops dripping in lemon-parsley butter, Scottish langoustines (which, according to Pandel, are so fresh “most of them are still moving” when they arrive in the kitchen) and oysters baked with smoky bonito butter. The oysters and scallops are addictive. I could eat a dozen of them. Though, I must note, one of our scallops was a little gritty, and one of the four oysters boasted a fishy funk. The langoustine’s tail meat was enrobed with a fluffy shrimp mousse featuring a delightfully round spiciness courtesy of locally grown Spence Farm espelette peppers.
Pandel brings Italian flavor to the menu with a plate of housemade agnolotti ($15) stuffed with creamy pureed celery root drizzled with a sweet and sour combo of pear, chives and balsamic vinegar. The pasta was silky and the celery root velvety like a fondue. It was one of the best pastas I’ve eaten this year.
Any visit to a steakhouse comes with a measure of guilt. The combination of carbs, butter and red meat means cardinal sins against the waistline will be committed. Needing to set the karmic balance, I ordered up the autumn chopped salad ($12), a crisp bounty of seasonal farm vegetables including Nichols Farm green beans, delicata squash, sunchoke, apple and brined celery root splashed with a foamy tarragon vinaigrette. The apple cubes crunched like croutons, and the vegetables were so substantial that the dish filled me with the satisfaction of a carnivore and the virtuosity of a vegan.
I wiped that virtuosity away minutes later by consuming mounds of carbs, including a side of lazy pierogi ($8) inspired by Pandel’s grandmother Adamina Karpinsky’s recipe. The mix of ricotta, flour, butter, black pepper, onion and chive was ethereal like perfect gnocchi but still needed a heavy pinch of salt. I also sampled some “everything” roast fingerling potatoes ($9) seasoned with all the spices you’d find on an everything bagel. The skins were golden and wrinkled, the interiors fluffy, but these too needed a bit more salt.
The best pastry chef in Chicago
As with Cancelli, the Boka group made an incredible hire with pastry chef Galus (NoMI Kitchen). Even before I dined at Swift, I’ve long been convinced she’s the best and most innovative pastry chef working in Chicago today. She reinforced that notion with a dessert called the S & S Cracker Jack ($9), featuring a hexagonal-shaped half dome of peanut butter mousse that looked a little like Epcot’s Spaceship Earth cut in half and stuffed with a gooey salted caramel center. The mousse was garnished with house-popped caramel corn that, were it widely available at retail, would put Garrett out of business. This was all topped with a magnificent popcorn-infused sherbet that tasted like buttery sweet corn.
Bottom line: No matter how much you innovate, the essence of a truly great steakhouse is creating a space for those who aren’t royalty to feel like royalty. A great steakhouse is palatial, ceremonious and indulgent—and for a few hours, makes sure you are unburdened by the trifles of the world. In these things Swift & Sons mostly succeeds, but there are still trifles, poorly cooked dishes, gritty scallops, inconsistent seasoning and, at times, some M.I.A. servers. If those things are adjusted, Swift & Sons will be the best steakhouse in Chicago.
Review: Swift & Sons
1000 W. Fulton Market 312-733-9420
Rating: **1/2 (out of 4)
This article first appeared in Redeye Chicago in a different form.